First Cousins & Democracy in Iraq

Mark Twain’s description of the Grangerford/Shepherdson feud and James Webb’s Born Fighting take different perspectives on a tough, independent strain central to American culture. The Grangerfords give honor to Pilgrim’s Progress and Henry Clay’s speeches; they decorate with Highland Marys and graveyard art. Their religion (predestination and brotherly love, while the guns are left at the door) echoes that hardy angularity Webb likes. But, of course, gone wrong, this can also produce a feud of honor over a pig. Gone wrong, it isn’t honor but tribalism. Faulkner, a writer of mythic and complex sensibility, appreciated the power of the passion that underlies such feuds, one he describes as “the old fierce pull of blood.” He counters it with the great ability western thought encourages: an ability to see the “other” as human, (as, indeed, burning with a spark of divinity). This leads us to transcend our blood loyalties, move from revenge to justice, from blood loyalty to national loyalty. Seeing all others as our brothers – ah, that is the great gift our tradition has given us. Webb sees the broader, more self-conscious and rational values that also permeate that tradition. But that primal urge, that fierce pull of blood, is always a part of us, a prioritizing we cannot help but feel.

The power of the tribal loyalty Twain captures was fresh on my mind when I happened upon “Cousin Marriage Conundrum”. Steve Sailor argues that “the ancient practice [of consanguinty] discourages democratic nation-building.” Then he quotes Randall Parker.

Consanguinity [cousin marriage] is the biggest underappreciated factor in Western analyses of Middle Eastern politics. Most Western political theorists seem blind to the importance of pre-ideological kinship-based political bonds in large part because those bonds are not derived from abstract Western ideological models of how societies and political systems should be organized. Extended families that are incredibly tightly bound are really the enemy of civil society because the alliances of family override any consideration of fairness to people in the larger society. Yet, this obvious fact is missing from 99% of the discussions about what is wrong with the Middle East. How can we transform Iraq into a modern liberal democracy if every government worker sees a government job as a route to helping out his clan at the expense of other clans?”

Not surprisingly, this Darwinian article was picked up by Pinker for an anthology, Best Science and Nature Writing 2004. As we might have predicted, this biological closeness leads to cultural distinctions.

In contrast, Americans probably disapprove of what scientists call ‘consanguineous’ mating more than any other nationality. Three huge studies in the U.S. between 1941 and 1981 found that no more than 0.2% of all American marriages were between first cousins or second cousins.

The level of consanguinity obviously leads to more trust within the family and less trust of those outside.

Sailer quotes a retired U.S. Army colonel Norvell De Atkine, who found these loyalties made training soldiers difficult and related it to the lack of trust for those outside the tribe. “Why Arabs Lose Wars” describes his frustration with the effect of such strong tribal loyalty – and such a weak sense of the state. Whether the election on Sunday works – or whether the constitution that comes out of it works – will probably depend to a large extent on how much those elected see themselves as Iraqis first and only secondly as members of the great three blocks and sees the family or tribe identification as a separate and even personal definition of self. Voicing that fact, a television interviewer asked a lovely American Iraqi how she felt: Today, she said, we think of ourselves as Iraqis and it is for Iraq we want the best. Today, we are not Shiite, Sunni or Kurd.
Sailers’ conclusion is less optimistic.

In summary, although neoconservatives constantly point to America’s success at reforming Germany and Japan after World War II has evidence that it would be easy to do the same in the Middle East, the deep social structure of Iraq is the complete opposite of those two true nation-states, with their highly patriotic, cooperative, and (not surprisingly) outbred peoples. The Iraqis, in contrast, more closely resemble the Hatfields and the McCoys.

But, we can hope that that young Iraqi in America represents many others. We see here the biological as well as cultural roots for the argument that Richard Rodriguez makes so often and so compellingly. (And here. This is a strong theme in his Brown) . But this is also implied by Ben Franklin’s and de Crevecoeur’s observations about the effect of the frontier on culture in the America of mid-eighteenth century. In his “Letters from an American Farmer” de Crevecoeur observes that “Thus all sects are mixed as well as all nations.” In a sense, he got it wrong, believing that this leads to “religious indifference”; nonetheless, if his interpretation is off, the phenomenon he observes is real. That “indifference” became tolerance of other religions while often fervently holding one’s own. I suspect this is because religious loyalties are often at odds with genetic ones, since in America families are comprised of many different religious, as well as political, class, and even geographic loyalties.

This is the cultural argument for globalization. A sense of world citizenship is fed by the young spouses our soldiers are likely to bring home and starved by the planned matings that bring Arabs to America to marry their first cousins.

9 thoughts on “First Cousins & Democracy in Iraq”

  1. Americans attitudes towards consanguinity are partially the result of the eugenics movement that begin in 1880 and ran up until WWII. The early eugenicist publicized the idea that close marriages produced genetic illness and weakness in offspring. They launched public education drives and advocated for laws banning the practice.

    Before that time cousin-to-cousin marriages where common in America, although probably less common than anywhere else.

    While most of what eugenic movement advocated was scientific crap they did occasionally get something right.

    The transfer of loyalty from an extended family group to an abstract entity like a nation state is in my opinion THE major cultural element that separates the West from the other cultures of the world.

    One advantage that we have in Iraq is that nobody in the past had is that in the contemporary world, democracy is the only alternative accepted by most people. The people of Iraq may have little loyalty outside their extended families but they understand that democratic Iraq will benefit those they care for more than any other likely outcome.

  2. “Americans attitudes towards consanguinity are partially the result of the eugenics movement that begin in 1880 and ran up until WWII.”

    But before that, Americans still managed to transcend tribal loyalty and embrace a patriotism to their nation (or half-nation in one case) much like we do. Were Americans before that movement still less prone to consanguinous marriages than modern-day Arabs?

  3. Ken,
    Prompted by Shannon’s comment (and a glaring mistake) I rewrote the last paragraph. While this isn’t scientific, the high level of marriage outside the group was noted by both Benjamin Franklin and de Crevecoeur in discussing the nature of American culture in the mid-seventeen hundreds. The level of intermarriage in the U.S. has traditionally (Fischer notes it and so does Sailer) been strongest in the more isolated rural areas such as Appalachia, where tribal loyalty (by American standards) has always been stronger.

  4. I think Ginny is correct that Americans have always had an unusually high number of out marriages than other cultures, even the cultures that groups of Americans came from.

    Partially, this is the result of the breaking up of extended families in the emigration process. Extended families did no immigrate in mass but often in sub-units down to the level of nuclear family or unmarried individuals. As a result, people were forced to marry outside their families.

    Class mobility also played a role. In Europe, extended families tended to belong in on class (indeed classes are really just groups of extended families). Indeed, maintaining a family’s status was a primary driver of close marriages. In America, a person born in poor could find themselves wealthy by the time they married. They could marry a stranger from their new social class. Also, there was less resistance to a poor person “marrying up.”

    Our present since of revulsion at the thought of cousin marriages however, is the result of an extensive public education campaign in the late 19th and early 20th century carried out in main by people following eugenicist doctrines. Before then Americans evinced no particular aversion to the practice even if they engaged in it far less than others.

  5. I think the main argument here has its causality backwards. Cousin-marriage and other behaviors that tend to reinforce clan or family loyalty at the expense of the State and civil society, are more likely functions of a lack of stable governmental institutions and civil society than they are causes.

    In the absence of secure property rights, rule of law and enforceable contracts, individuals will deal, except on issues of slight value, only with other individuals whom they trust. Thus the main form of business organization in such societies is family- or clan-based: the Chinese business family, the European banking family, the Arab tribe, etc.

    These organizational patterns work, but they are ultimately limiting because they make it difficult to raise large amounts of investment capital or to offset risk beyond the family group.

    Societies that have thrived in the modern world typically are politically and legally stable and have developed various mechanisms to facilitate dealing safely with strangers and to encourage business risk taking on a large scale. Principle among these mechanisms are insurance, limited-liability corporations and public capital markets. Much of the Arab world remains backward WRT such issues.

    Political stability and accountable government are probably prerequisites for further social and economic development in the Arab world. It seems likely, if Iraq becomes democratic and reasonably stable, that its trust-based tribal culture will eventually weaken. However the converse is not necessarily true: absent an appreciation of the incentives underlying Iraq’s traditional tribal culture, attempts to weaken that culture will probably not by themselves improve Iraq’s social or democratic outlook.

  6. Clearly inbreeding simultaneously causes and is caused by insular and insecure societies. The tribal/clan society typified by many arab countries tends to reinforce itself while discouraging any transition to other forms of societies.

    In my opinion, the two types of cultures described above constitute “strange attractors” in chaos theory terms. The two cultures compete against each other, since it is difficult for them both to survive simultaneously in the same place.

  7. I’m sure G ewirtz and Hight are right in the majority of cases, but other factors enter. For instance, although the rule of law accompanied the American migration west, some intermarriage was going to happen on the frontier because, well, people want to mate when they reach a certain age. A varied population presents a varied, if limited, choice.

    Anecdote: After posting this last night, today we went to one of my husband’s numerous relatives 50th Anniversary. As the husband described their courtship, he joked about the village priest, who had dug out his papers and traced their relation to one another. Only when he saw they were third cousins and had no closer auxilliary relations was he willing to perform the service. My husband (raised Catholic) noted what I’m surprised neither Lex nor Scotus jumped on–and I’m sure both know it better than my googling found. Still, the Catholic injunctions go back to at least the eighth century.

    Catholic Encyclopedia:

    The Church was prompted by various reasons first to recognize the prohibitive legislation of the Roman State and then to extend the impediment of consanguinity beyond the limits of the civil legislation. The welfare of the social order, according to St. Augustine (De Civ. Dei, XV, xvi) and St. Thomas (Suppl. Q. liii, a. 3), demanded the widest possible extension of friendship and love among all humankind, to which desirable aim the intermarriage of close blood-relations was opposed; this was especially true in the first half of the Middle Ages, when the best interests of society required the unification of the numerous tribes and peoples which had settled on the soil of the Roman Empire.

    Of course, this follows the central impulse of Christianity that all men should be seen as brothers, as part of the Christian family.

  8. Ginny,

    I, of course, know about the Church’s laws against consanguinity. I didn’t, however, think that they are relevant to this discussion because the prohibition against first cousins’ marrying was (and is) NOT absolute. The only prohibitions against marrying, based upon consanguinity, that are absolute are the prohibition against marrying in any degree of the direct line (i.e. parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, great-grandparents and great-grandchildren, etc.) and the prohibition against marrying in the first degree of the collateral line (i.e. brothers and sisters). The prohibition against first cousins’ marrying, or even uncles marrying nieces and aunts marrying nephews, may be dispensed by the local bishop.

    Though the prohibition against uncles marrying nieces and aunts marrying nephews, in practice, is never dispensed, dispensations of the prohibition against first cousins’ marrying are, while uncommon, not unheard of. Indeed, in a rural community near my hometown, there is a substantial group of Catholics of Polish heritage. It’s my understanding that, in this community, marriage between first cousins in the first years after emigration from Poland was not uncommon because the émigrés wanted to make sure all the land they had acquired would remain “all in the family.” This is why, to this day, there are relatively few different Polish surnames in this substantial community.

    Apropos of Shannon’s point about class, I suspect that, in Europe, the prohibition against first cousin marriage was dispensed often for the nobility and royalty. As far the lower classes, well, I suspect that, in medieval times, the priests were not always as diligent as your husband’s relatives’ priest because the prohibition against first cousin marriage was, as stated, not absolute. Still, one of the main reasons for the requirement that the bands of marriage be read at three successive Sunday Masses before a wedding could take place was to inquire whether the couple planning marriage had any problems with consanguinity.

    In the end, I suppose we can say that the Church’s frowning on first cousins’ marrying contributed to Europe’s relatively less clannishness vis a vis the Middle East, but the factors you and Shannon discuss helped to make America much less clannish than Europe, especially Continental Europe. As Jonathan points out, however, it’s probably true that a lack of strong civil society is more a cause of clannishness than a lack of taboos against consanguinity; indeed, the lack of such society might also help explain the lack of such taboos. What’s more, the lack of strong civil society is more likely the cause of clannishness than the converse, but it’s also true that, once it is present, clannishness can impede the development of a strong civil society.

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